Darko Gavrilović

Professor of History, Novi Sad

Darko Gavrilović is a history professor at the Faculty of Science in Novi Sad, Serbia. He is the director of the Center for History, Democracy, and Reconciliation in Novi Sad and the chief editor of the journal “Serb-Croat Relations in the 20th century”.
Darko was a visiting professor at the Charles University Prague, the University of Lodz, the Jagiellonian University, and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Darko’s research interests predominantly include Serb-Croat political relations in the 20th century, political myths, and cultural studies.
In this interview he shares some of his thoughts about heroes and heroization processes and political myths in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the War in Ukraine.

The earlier interview with Darko Gavrilović can be found here.

  • The fifteenth international gathering “Serb-Croat relations in the 20th century” will take place from the 24th until the 29th of August 2022. This year the topic is heroes and political myths in cultural memory. What inspired the choice of this topic?
The focus on this topic sheds more light on the long history of political elites and their readiness to sacrifice people for the success of various goals and agendas. Although throughout the 21st century there has often been a tendency to think that contemporary heroes the youth look up to are celebrities, musicians, actors, or athletes, this is certainly not the case. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and the more recent War in Ukraine have shown us otherwise.  Namely, wartime sees the rise of national heroes that are mobilized by political elites as ideal moral leaders in the creation of collective identity and the perception of continuity in the magnificent past that is transferred through cultural memory. Political myths are an especially effective fuel for various ideologies when it comes to the mobilization of masses because they help turn the somewhat unclear or weak messages into ideologically suitable goals that are worthy of sacrifice. The whirlwinds of war initiated by political elites, with ordinary citizens becoming collateral victims, are the ideal ground for the creation of heroes and the proliferation of political myths. Even after wars and when the aforementioned political elites feel the need to use them, myths and heroes continue their lives through the process of heroization, which includes the following: self-identification, imitation, comparison, modelling (looking up to someone), and glorification. This process has the goal of creating a desirable identity for the members of a specific ideological or national community. If the heroization is successful, the heroes become a desired aspect of identity and carry relevant values of heroism, such as fearlessness, dedication, responsibility, and courage. At the same time, both heroes and the values that accompany them can become dangerous due to being manipulated for political gain and deepening existing polarization as a result. Furthermore, if historians accept the heroization of certain historical figures, they risk giving up their critical stance. This in turn jeopardizes history as a discipline since heroic individuals are not scientifically scrutinized. On the contrary, they are idealized and their image becomes frozen and not subject to review or criticism. Any attempt to question said heroes is characterized as treason.   
  • What is the significance of myths and heroes nowadays, especially when we take into account the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the War in Ukraine?
With the intensification of conflicts and wars, as well as global pandemics, history teaches us that societies do not give up on heroization, political myths, and conspiracy theories. During such times, conflicted sides perceive the world as divided between those who are on the side of good (themselves and their allies) and those who are on the side of evil (adversaries and their allies). This makes it that much easier to place blame on individuals and groups, or basically anyone who thinks differently. Often times, seemingly logical and simple explanations are offered in order to explain challenging and difficult events. Since those explanations lead to a false sense of control, they become receptive to those that do not have or simply reject adequate and substantiated information. When it comes to Covid-19, many conspiracy theories proliferated that were fueled primarily by doubt, with any piece of perceived evidence being included into a chosen theory. These theories are usually difficult to refute since anyone who attempts to do so is labelled a co-conspirator. 
  • Crises inevitably result with an intensified circulation of conspiracy theories and myths. Could you point out some myths that were prevalent in Croatia and Serbia during the Covid-19 pandemic?
This includes myths and conspiracy theories that are characteristic for many other countries as well. Conspiracy theorists developed ideas based on already existing theories and built them upon the assumption that there is an ongoing battle between good and evil in the world. Some of the most popular and widespread conspiracy theories include ideas about the fabrication of the number of deaths with the goal of population control, Covid-19 as a biological weapon created by the USA or China, a secret conspiracy of the pharmaceutical industry to gain more profit, or the conspiracy of the deep state, namely a group of people that rules a particular state or even the world against the will of ordinary people.
  • The War in Ukraine evokes memories of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars. The mobilization of memory, among other practices, can serve to promote various political agendas, facilitate community belonging, but also group antagonism. What are some of your observations related to the aforementioned?
To date, analysts and scholars have discussed comparisons and similarities between Serbia’s Milošević and Russia’s Putin, ethnic cleansing, mass exodus, destruction, and the creation of ethnically homogenous states after the collapse of socialism. Other related issues they brought to attention included the rise of extremist organizations and paramilitary forces, as well as the catastrophic transition that led to mass poverty and the enrichment of solely a small part of the population, as well as the lack of initiative on both the Croatian and Serbian side to solve issues by means of political dialogue. The latter aspect was present already before the 1990s Yugoslav Wars and largely led to the wars to begin with. Currently, as the Russian invasion continues and war crimes occur on a daily basis, it is even harder to talk about peace negotiations, let alone reconciliation processes and the politics of regional stability. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is witnessing the loss of tens of thousands of lives, while various propaganda efforts strengthen patriotism by demonizing the other side. Once the war ends, a lot of time will be necessary to heal at least some wounds to the extent that it is possible. Meanwhile, politicians who somehow profit from polarization and group antagonism will attempt to prevent this. The aforementioned dynamic very much reminds of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars, but also of the hatred that is continuously provoked by extremists in the region. My modest contribution to the observations related to comparisons between the War in Ukraine and the Wars in Yugoslavia arise precisely from current research that deals with heroization processes in Europe. During wars, there is always a need to create heroes. Accordingly, and since every side wants more space for their heroes in history, they do so by drawing comparisons from local history, but also from European or world history. I have dedicated my current research to the demonstration of Sparta and the Spartiate as the universal, operational, and state-forming model that was used for processes of heroization in the Old Continent. For example, the deaths and conscious self-sacrifice of 300 full-fledged citizens of Sparta in the Battle of Thermopylae in a defensive war against a vastly more powerful conqueror present maybe the most ideal pattern for the heroization of warriors in Europe. Sparta carried a significant role in the development of European identity, providing it with courage, self-sacrifice, a fighting spirit, and the readiness to lay down one’s life for the sake of ideals that were considered relevant for the state and the way of life.  In the cultural memory of modern Europe, the heroization of members of one’s community and their comparison to the Spartiate from Thermopylae is a common topic. In the last 200 years, Sparta was primarily heroized by Prussia and Nazi Germany. In its history, Poland has named even six of its own Thermopylae, while Serbs, Croats, and Ukrainians are no exception. In Serbia’s past, this was the Battle at Čokešina from the First Serbian Uprising, in Croatia’s past it was the defense of Siget. In more recent history, Serbia’s Thermopylae was the 1999 Battle of Košare, and Croatia’s the defense of the city of Vukovar. Ukrainians have been fighting against the Russian invasion for months and they have also declared Thermopylae of their own. Specifically, the defense of Mariupol has been referred to as such in both Ukrainian as well as international media, and by politicians. The defenders from Azovstal have been referred to as 300 Spartiates. The presence of the Spartiate in European history served as a basis for the development of a moral base for community survival during challenging times. Heroic narratives are an important educational means for the facilitation of desired messages in a community, but also for the reinforcement of solidarity and motivation. In modern history, Sparta has been utilized in order to glorify heroic battles and heroic deaths. Its use in processes of heroization has contributed to the strengthening of narratives that hinder a critical view of the alleged significance of an individual or event from the past. Rather, those processes result with setting a particular hero on a pedestal without questioning their role. 
  • Though crises often lead to instability and uncertainty, they can also generate positive change, new insights, and perspectives. How do you observe crises and their educational potential?
There are many positive examples that come from various experiences. The rhetoric of blame, along with confession and seeking forgiveness, have been transferred into new possibilities for reconciliation, rehabilitation, and victim compensation through the legal medium of restitution. This opens up an innovative possibility for the establishment of sustainable peace in international relations. Accordingly, emphasis is put on reconciliation and the development of democracy, rather than the spread and dissemination of extremist ideologies and groups. What does this mean on a political level? It means that, as soon as conditions allow, it is necessary to support the creation of a politics of peace and the advancement of a politics of regional stability and reconciliation based on the principle of building a strong political structure. It is further necessary to give peace a chance and support any efforts to achieve it along with people that work toward it. Moreover, an opportunity for forgiveness is crucial and should be supported when it helps victims to move on, while also giving a chance to perpetrators to repent, serve their sentence, and become actively engaged in working toward a peaceful coexistence. Of course, the vulnerability of minority communities should not be neglected; their collaboration on the local, regional, and international level carries a significant role in the formation of a system of safety and peace.  In addition to the aforementioned aspects, it is also necessary to go through the process of spiritual and intellectual healing, which can be accomplished in different ways and through various actions. One of those processes is the inclusion of peace education because it promotes knowledge and skills that help people create social conditions that foster peace and contribute to peaceful approaches in case of a conflict. In order to achieve values such as respect for human rights, freedom, and trust, various peace education programs around the world deal with a wide variety of topics that include: non-violence, conflict resolution, democracy, disarmament, gender equality, history, responsibility toward nature, communication skills, coexistence, and intercultural communication.  We should also remember the relevance of upbringing as a process that cannot be realized solely through formal education. Rather, it should include institutions such as family, religion, and others, that contribute to the upbringing of a healthy and well-rounded person. Humans are not meant to live without love; to leave them without love means to limit them. Conditions where there is a lack of love are in contradiction with the development of sustainable peace and may pave the way toward more polarization, antagonism, and wars. However, by ensuring and maintaining sustainable peace, we enable and support the human potential of each individual, which further develops and enriches communities.

Semiotics of Conflict 2019. All rights reserved.

Pattern by Harryarts.